Free Information movement as seen through Thomas Pynchon’s ‘Byron the Bulb’ story

Mar 20, 2013

The reader who dares enter the labyrinthine corridors of Thomas Pynchon’s mind will reap great rewards. If one manages to get beyond the first few pages of “Gravity’s Rainbow”—the author’s magnum opus—then one is treated to one of the great narratives of literature, and one of Pynchon’s finest moments: “The Story of Byron the Bulb.”

“Byron the Bulb” is a roughly 15-page narrative of a World War II-era lightbulb named Byron, who is a very special lightbulb indeed.

Before we proceed, first, how do we draw a line from Pynchon’s work here with Byron micro-narrative to the recent free information movement or, indeed, the hacker narrative in general? Rather simply, it turns out. That is not to say that Pynchon was particularly prescient. He wasn’t actively predicting personal computing, the Internet, and the resultant surveillance state and hacktivist push-back. But Pynchon’s Byron narrative does deal with technology and revolution, amongst other things. It can speak to us even now. In the Byron narrative, Pynchon examines the individual existing in the face of a politico-corporate cartel, but also explores the notion that electricity connects the individual to a worldwide system. Like Byron, we are plugged or “jacked” into this network and variously attuned to its pulsations and perturbations.

Pynchon understood how technology would alter society in the latter half of the 20th century. When the great literary hermit was writing “The Crying of Lot 49” and “Gravity’s Rainbow”—simultaneously, according to a letter to his agent at the time—the world was just beginning to comprehend the gravity (no pun intended) of Marshall McCluhan and Quinten Fiore’s “The Medium is the Message”. Technologies were coming into existence at a faster and faster clip every day, mingling and colliding from strange trajectories.

The Yippies were busy hacking television with their pranks, such as the Pentagon elevation stunt or their trial in Chicago. Video art was just coming into existence, with Nam June Paik and Peter Campus (see: Double Vision) hacking traditional video. Electronic music was in its infancy with Werner Meyer-Eppler’s essay Elektronische Klangerzeugung: Elektronische Musik und Synthetische Sprache leading the way; and Karlheinz Stockhausen, Bob Moog, Wendy Carlos and Silver Apples subsequently manipulating analogue signal paths. And we hardly need to mention the numerous personalities creating the next generation of computing, whether at Xerox PARC, Hewlett Packard or in the homebrew clubs that produced Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and Steve Wozniak.

Is anyone at all surprised that technological creation and cultural revolution walked hand-in-hand in the ’60s and early ’70s? (And let’s not forget the role of psychedelics in the humanities and sciences of the time.)

This was the milieu in which Pynchon worked with “Gravity’s Rainbow” and the novel’s Byron story. Instead of a contemporary setting, Pynchon opted to nestle his sprawling plot in the last year of World War II. A war that was in many ways a temporal singularity that produced some of the biggest paradigm shifts of the 20th century. The war gave humanity the atomic bomb, the Nazi-designed rockets that would take us into outer space, and LSD, the alchemical forbidden fruit that would allow us to explore inner space. “Gravity’s Rainbow” is the axis upon which much of that wartime history (and post-war history) pivots.

And so one really denies “Gravity’s Rainbow” at one’s own peril.

It might just be the critical document of the 20th century; even if, as Pynchon reportedly told Jules Siegel: “I was so fucked up while I was writing it . . . that now I go back over some of those sequences and I can’t figure out what I could have meant.” Like a grand psychedelic trip, “Gravity’s Rainbow” (GR) produces in the reader epiphany after epiphany functioning as components building toward one complex, universal epiphany. And a big part of this epiphenomenonal matrix lies in “Byron the Bulb”, though it numbers only nine pages.

In one sense, Byron is a tangent—a rogue sketch that found its way into GR perhaps because Pynchon liked it. In another sense, Byron is GR condensed to a general thesis. On what? Hell, any number of interpretations could be derived from Byron, but I like to think that it reads as revelation. And the revelation is this: from the moment homo sapiens fashioned the first tool to the moment we are finally and completely extinguished, we are fated to be governed by those who control technology. This extends beyond mere government dictates and into corporatocratic structures.

Technology serves twin mistresses: those who create the technology and sell it, and those who can use it in the exercise of power. These two worlds obviously overlap. Product, especially of the technological variety, is a means of control.

Take Google, for example. Google’s Sergey Brin and Larry Page created algorithms that changed the world. In doing so the corporation made mass data collection incredibly streamlined; creating an irresistibly magnetic attraction between industry and government.

There is the perception that you control this technology. Facebook will tell the user that he or she presents their life on their profile (creating a digital doppelganger), but the information is not the user’s but Facebook’s. Users ceded control of their digital personal to Facebook the moment they created an account. The same goes for Twitter, Tumblr and Instagram, as well-intentioned as its creators might be.

Likewise, in Byron’s micro-narrative, corporate and state forces control the life and death cycles of light bulbs. Byron, however, is unique in that he is immortal. And it is precisely Byron’s immortality, his inability to be controlled, that frightens the Phoebus Cartel—the WWII-era conspiracy including General Electric, Osram and Phillips—that dictated the shelf life of light bulbs and fixed prices across the globe. Money and power were the motivations. The radical lightbulb Byron sees the machinations of control and undergoes a transformation into a leader or a prophet.

Byron dreams of revolution—of technology freeing itself from its corporate-state shackles. As Pynchon writes of Byron’s imminent shipment as a lighting product:

“When M-Day finally does roll around, you can bet Byron’s elated. He has passed the time hatching some really insane grandiose plans—he’s gonna organize all the Bulbs, see, get him a power base in Berlin, he’s already hep to the Strobing Tactic, all you do is develop the hack (Yogic, almost) of shutting off and on at a rate close to the human brain’s alpha rhythm, and you can actually trigger an epileptic fit! True. Byron has had a vision against the rafters of his ward, of 20 million Bulbs, all over Europe, at a given synchronizing pulse arranged by one of his many agents in the Grid, all these Bulbs beginning to strobe together, humans thrashing around the 20 million rooms like fish on the beaches of Perfect Energy— Attention, humans, this has been a warning to you. Next time, a few of us will explode. Ha-ha. Yes we’ll unleash our Kamikaze squads! You’ve heard of the Kirghiz Light? well that’s the ass end of a firefly compared to what we’re gonna—oh, you haven’t heard of the—oh, well, too bad. Cause a few Bulbs, say a million, a mere 5% of our number, are more than willing to flame out in one grand burst instead of patiently waiting out their design hours. . . . So Byron dreams of his Guerrilla Strike Force, gonna get Herbert Hoover, Stanley Baldwin, all of them, right in the face with one coordinated blast. . . . ” (pp. 648-649, “Gravity’s Rainbow”)

The Grid, develop a hack, synchronizing pulse and “strobe” and a “coordinated blast”? Sounds not a little like the coordinating tactics of hackers trying to liberate information.

We find an analogue in the free information movement. Hacktivists such as WikiLeaks and Anonymous, and anyone who sympathizes with their fight, are Pynchonian Byrons. But Pynchon notes—as if their were any other realistic outcome—that the Byrons of this world will be contained, somehow or another. They must at all costs be controlled. And how else to control a node of rebellion but remove it from the Grid, as we’ve seen over so many years with hackers.

“At 800 hours—another routine precaution—a Berlin agent is ent out to the opium den to transfer Byron… the other bulbs watch, in a barely subdued terror. The word goes out along the Grid. At something close to the speed of light, every bulb… in Europe knows what’s happened. They are silent with impotence, with surrender in the face of struggles they thought were all myth. We can’t help, this common thought humming through pastures of sleeping sheep, down Autobahns and to the bitter ends of coaling piers in the North, there’s never been anything we could do. . . . Anyone shows us the meanest hope of transcending and the Committee on Incandescent Anomalies comes in and takes him away. Some do protest, maybe, here and there, but it’s only information, glow-modulated, harmless, nothing close to the explosions in the faces of the powerful that Byron once envisioned, back there in his Baby ward, in his innocence.” (pp. 650-651)

It is the unifying theme of all Pynchon novels: the rebels, the dissidents, the masterless masses are all at some point or another contained. And they are contained for the very simple reason that human beings, when placed in positions of a comfortable status quo, do not want to upset the balance—the righting of moral and ethical wrongs be damned.

Byron’s immortality and inchoate rebelliousness then doubles as that other very human impulse, dissidence—that which refuses to be bound. The truth being that after all the corporate and state planning, there will always be unpredictabilities or errors in the system. Call them bugs or viruses, the bane of every programmers’ and users’ existence. And the hacker, the free information activist, is the virus in modernity’s otherwise smoothly running program.

But Byron and free information activists prove to us that there are limits to control. In a world that has been in flux from the day it coalesced out of stardust, there will always be Byrons aplenty. Whether or not they can ultimately beat those who lust after more, or who simply desire stasis, is yet to be determined. Anyone who has considered democratic rebellions knows it is incredibly difficult to get people to awaken en masse from the collective hallucination.

As Pynchon writes of the infant lightbulb Byron in relation to other “Bulb Babies”: ”It is a constant struggle to turn their thoughts on anything meaningful”.

Around the Web